Suicide rates among American college students are on the rise, to the dismay of school administrators and psychologists. In an effort to identify depression in college students before it escalates to something worse, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has launched a depression pre-screening program. So far it's been implemented at just two universities, but the pilot program seems to be making a difference.
Ashley is a twenty-year-old majoring in film studies at Emory University in Atlanta. She asked that her last name not be used in this story.
"I think I first got the e-mail probably in October. And I took the test, just because I really like taking online tests, and it was a test online," she said.
The e-mail Ashley is referring to was sent out to every undergraduate at Emory as part of a program that pre-screens college students for depression. The e-mail invites students to take an anonymous, online test that asks them questions about their eating and sleeping habits, as well as the degree to which they feel lonely or sad or hopeless. Students' answers are then evaluated by trained psychologists, and anyone who seems to be at risk for depression is invited to come into the Emory Clinic to talk to a doctor or social worker.
"I immediately got results that [said] I needed to come in to talk to someone, because they thought that I had a high probability of being depressed, based on this test's results," recalls Ashley.
Ashley says she didn't act on the invitation to talk to someone at first. But after a few weeks had passed, she got a follow-up message, encouraging her, once again, to see a counselor, and this time, she did make an appointment. She's now on anti-depressant medication and has been meeting with a clinical social worker once a week.
Ashley says she suspected something was wrong before she even got the e-mail, which is why she was so willing to take the online test. But she says until she started meeting with a counselor to discuss her feelings, she had no idea how hopeless and overwhelmed she was. And she says she doesn't think she's unique in that respect.
"College is a very uncertain time," says Ashley. "You've got pressure from your parents, you know, 'What are you going to be when you grow up? What are you studying? What's the point of going to college? What are you doing after college?' And I think that anybody that responds to that kind of pressure, it's very probable that they're going to get depressed at some point in time. And I think that when you're this young, you don't necessarily have the mechanisms to deal with depression."
A recent study conducted at Kansas State University found that the rate of depression among American college students had doubled over the course of the last decade, and that the number of students thinking about suicide has tripled. Indeed, suicide has become the number two killer among American college students, right after accidents. In a particularly tragic example of this trend, New York University has had four of its students kill themselves in the last six months.
Jill Rosenberg, a clinical social worker who oversees Emory's depression pre-screening program, says, ironically, part of the reason depression rates have gone up among college students is that doctors have gotten better at identifying emotional problems in children.
"There are kids who are entering college now who might not have otherwise entered college, because they've had emotional difficulties or learning issues, or things that might interfere with their getting to college that have been evaluated and treated earlier, but they come to college with more difficulties than I think some students [did] in the past," says Ms. Rosenberg.
This poses a real challenge for school administrators, who are often charged with the responsibility of looking after students whose parents live hundreds, even thousands of kilometers away. Jill Rosenberg estimates that about ten percent of Emory's students have responded to the e-mail invitations she sends out. The program is only in its second year, so she hasn't yet compiled statistics on how many of those respondents were deemed to be at risk for depression. Still, Jill Rosenberg says the anonymous nature of the online test allows her to reach students who wouldn't ordinarily walk into her clinic on their own. Ashley, the second-year film student who took the test last October, agrees.
"I think that this is a really effective way of finding people who need help," she says. "And I think that especially with colleges that have high depression or high suicide rates, this could be a really good program. And there's a real appeal to college students [because of] the ease of it. That you can be really lazy, and still have the ability to get help, even though you didn't seek it out."
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention launched a second depression pre-screening program last January at the University of North Carolina. Officials from the organization say the program doesn't cost much money, and that even if it helps just a handful of students, it's worthwhile. Nevertheless, the group is waiting until it has some solid data on the program's effectiveness, before it starts campaigning to have all American universities pre-screen their students for depression.